Marooned ‘Martian’ lends authenticity to Matt Damon’s role

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It’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the 2011 novel by Andy Weir, a self-described space nerd who originally self-published the well-researched “hard sci-fi” tale online.

Much of the book consists of first-person narration by our hero, Mark Watney, who has been lost in a sandstorm and thought dead by his fellow astronauts during an evacuation.

Watney logs his initially futile-seeming survival efforts—figuring out how to grow potatoes in lifeless Martian soil, how to reestablish communication with NASA, etc.—for posterity, along with copious whistling-in-the-dark wisecracks.

When the book is the monologues of the desperate-yet-snarky Watney it’s a terrific read; later, when Weir shifts the scene to the rescue efforts back on Earth, his touch is less assured.

But The Martian is a real achievement, and first-rate movie source material, and Scott makes it convincing and absorbing.

Or, rather, he creates the necessary atmospheric setting for his leading man to make it convincing and absorbing. I heard that Matt Damon was playing the title role before I started Weir’s novel, with the result that I heard Damon’s voice in my head the whole time I was reading Watney’s narrative.

But I think I would have heard something very close to his voice anyway.

There are other solid performances in the cast, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor as a NASA honcho, but this is potentially the role of Damon’s career, Jason Bourne notwithstanding.

I’m not sure any part he’s played has fit his persona like this boyish, decent-hearted yet smart-alecky space cadet.

 

Still in theaters

 

Pawn SacrificeTobey Maguire plays chess master Bobby Fisher in Edward Zwick’s intriguing chronicle, focusing on his legendary 1972 match in Reykjavik, Iceland, with Russian master Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber).

I well remember what an improbably iconic figure Fisher was even in the rural America where I grew up, because he was able to beat the Soviets in a field for which they particularly prided themselves.

What most of us didn’t know at the time was the degree to which Fisher was not just a little eccentric but a full-blown, tinfoil-on-the-skull paranoid megalomaniac, bristling with ugly vitriol against communists and Jews (though he was Jewish himself) and certain he was being conspired against. He was also sensitive to his environment, finding it hard to play without absolute quiet. The title, perhaps, is meant to suggest that Fisher was the pawn, his obvious mental health needs sacrificed by the U.S. for a Cold War win.

If the script, by Steven Knight, and Maguire’s performance is to be believed, Fisher’s nuttiness didn’t quite excuse him from also being an insufferably arrogant, exasperating jerk. His chess genius apparently did, however. The people close to him, including his coach, the chess master and Catholic priest William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), seemed capable of going to almost any lengths to accommodate him.

It’s to Maguire’s credit that, without softening Fisher, he makes him a poignant and haunted and also comic figure as well as an infuriating one. The supporting cast helps too, especially Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg as the shady, possibly covert-intelligence-connected tournament promoter, and Schrieber. Spassky isn’t a large role, but Schrieber brings it a warm, indolent virility, like a self-possessed old tomcat, yet with the suggestion that he may have his own, less virulent streak of paranoia.

 

The Martian and Pawn Sacrifice are both rated PG-13; and both play at Chandler Fashion 20 and other multiplexes Valleywide.

 

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